Governor, lawmakers clash over future budget process

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In the wake of a messy conflict between the executive and legislative branches over state spending, Sen. Paul Bussman of Cullman on Tuesday called for a hearing where all state department heads would testify during a “open communications meeting” regarding future budgets.

But presumably prompted by the office of Gov. Robert Bentley, state Acting Finance Director Bill Newton issued a memo Thursday telling Bussman “Thanks, but no thanks,” claiming such a hearing would interfere with the annual formal budget process.

“Each of you was invited to attend an open communications on future budget meeting on October 21,” wrote Newton. “I have been asked by the Governor to instruct you to not attend the meeting on October 21. The reason for this decision is the Budget Management Act.”

“You and your staff are familiar with this 40 year old law that defines in detail our State’s budget process. This law clearly sets out the responsibilities of all parties involved in this process including the Legislature. The legislative branch is to consider the Governor’s budget proposal and evaluate alternatives. At this point in the budget process, the Governor has not sent his FY 17 proposal to the Legislature for their consideration,” explained Newton.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler, however, thinks a hearing along the lines Bussman has suggest would not circumvent the formal budget process, and in fact “could greatly help that process.”

Zeigler called Bentley’s decision to prevent department heads for testifying next week – which are by and large appointed by the governor – a “boycott.”

“This is a strange application of the rules and procedures,” said Zeigler, saying more scrutiny would help the cause of an effective budget process.

“One problem this year was the governor was chronically late in getting proposals and bills to the legislature. He promised a special session on a date certain with plenty of time for preparation, but he pulled a surprise and called the session for the very next Monday,” said Zeigler, who plans to attend the hearing despite Bentley’s protestations. 

“The early open communications meeting can be a great idea. It does not violate the procedures for the governor’s budget,” Zeigler said Thursday.

The disagreement could set up a massive clash over spending and budget authority between the governor and the Legislature – and if Zeigler’s actions are a harbinger of the future, perhaps the governor and his own Cabinet.

Zeigler’s state auditor post is a statewide elected position not appointed by Bentley.

Sen. Bussman’s hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. on October 21, in the Joint Briefing Room of the Alabama State House in Montgomery.

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